This week the creative review blog ran an article by illustrator and LCC Dean of Design Lawrence Zeegen (someone whose opinion I respect and who, as a rule, can offer quite a well rounded view of contemporary design and illustration). The article argued that illustrators are in danger of losing social relevance; that the proliferation of broadly commercial, sale-able and self-referential works by contemporary illustrators means that we run the risk of becoming an insular, self-serving, cottage industry. Now, I am not in the habit of discussing 'state of the (illustrative) nation' type stuff on here. As a rule I find the majority of internet design writing somewhat self-aggrandising and lacking wider world perspective (its not brave, its not noble, its photoshop. ahem. sorry). But in this case I feel the need to jump in, as you would defend a family member who, perhaps, suffered from poor personal hygiene out of familial loyalty so I will defend Illustration and illustrators to the ends of the earth. Its just what you do out of blind, hopeless, love.
Firstly Zeegen seems to suggest that all the work an illustrator makes is illustration and I'm just not sure that this is true. When working to commission for a client then, yes, you are an illustrator. But the work you make for yourself, the self-initiated projects taken about with no direction but your own? That errs more on the side of art I think. Client work must be exempt from criticism of its content. In the majority of circumstances the illustrator has no sway over what an illustration for a book or magazine or advert says, in the simplest of terms you are a hand for hire. Unless you're an expert in sneaky subversion it would be hard to get a political or social narrative into a editorial about summer bestsellers- I don't know this for sure, perhaps its been done- I don't know. So that stuff is, really, not worth discussing, its out of our control. In times such as these, when jobs are scarce and design graduates seemingly generating from thin air, you cannot blame anyone for knuckling down and doing the job asked of them. Having an agenda is just not a viable financial option for those wanting to pay their rent.
So that leaves the work we make to our own ends. For me, this mostly takes the form of prints and zines and I distribute them in an online shop and with a small handful of independent retailers. I print my work, post and package it by myself. I am, in a way, my own cottage industry. As are many of my friends and peers. In a market that is suffering with the decline of print media we have been forced to be inventive, to find new ways to make a living from image-making, lest we have to join the real world and everyone realises how useless we are in all other fields (that may only apply to me). Zeegen seems disparaging towards the move towards 'craft-driven aesthetics' (also as an aside- 'polite pleasantries are exchanged between illustrator and audience' is that a genuine criticism? Should we be slinging insults at one another? Berating our audiences for having the audacity to look at our work?). This seems short-sighted. Surely the 'handmade' movement is a political statement in itself (even if it is made unintentionally). That a group of people are choosing to make a living entirely on their own, taking the risk of irregular pay, massive initial outlay of finances and unreliable hours (I work, on average, 6.5 days a week) is, surely, a bold decision in the face of commercialism. A small, niggling part of me, worries that judgement of the handmade movement stems, partially, from its largely female proponents- that it is too easily mistaken for Women's Institute style hobby-ism. But that is part of another argument that I shall spare you from, for now.
On a base level this is a job. In order to make it work you have to make a living, and often this means you make what sells and this, I'll admit, can be a problem. Too often illustration gets confused with decoration, and artists stray towards 'pretty' rather than 'substantial'. I agree with Zeegen, to an extent, that there's a degree of 'style over content, function following form.' Its a pitfall of a trend-led market and the mass popularity of blogs and one we should rally against I think. A nice image is good but a nice image that says something (and I don't think this necessarily need be a statement about society or politics or the environment) is ten times better. But to say that 'Illustration has withdrawn from the big debates of our society to focus on the chit-chat and tittle-tattle of inner-sanctum nothingness' is to downplay the importance of this so-called 'inner-sanctum nothingness'. Novelists are rarely pounced on for attempting to decipher the human condition, musicians are lauded for hitting on universal emotions (Adele, for example, has sold thirty billion trillion records, for highlighting that often, getting over someone is properly shit). Even stand-up comedy, once a bastion of social subversion and political satire, is, as Stewart Lee succinctly points out "comedy […] now – it's not like the 80s – what it is now, it's a load of people and they all hate their electrical appliances." Seemingly we like the stuff that speaks to our humanity and we like that artists can explain the way we feel about certain things in beautiful ways. There is limitless value in the works of those who tell us we are not alone. It might be dangerously romantic and somewhat rose-tinted to say so but if I can read a, possibly self published, comic and find something in it that speaks to me then, I think, it is unfair to say that that artist is being self-indulgent or ignoring the wider political picture. To offer something to another living person, that's a nice thing and not to be sniffed out.
Throughout the history of illustration (which is somewhat potted and under documented by the way) there have only ever been a few artists making political commentaries within their work (I am not including the history of political cartooning which is another artform entirely). I'd imagine that in today's world there are an equivalent number of artists making socially charged images that there might have been in the sixties or eighties or at the turn of the twentieth century. I'm not sure that is has ever been considered the remit of the illustrator to put the world to rights any more than it has been expected of the typographer or the fashion designer. At the very least I can only think of a handful and I am relatively well versed in the work of other illustrators. I might be wrong.
Zeegen also asks whether the artists exhibiting at this years Pick Me Up at Somerset House will attempt to offer more than 'mere nothingness' and whether, in fact, anyone 'outside of the cozy world of graphic art and illustration is stepping inside to sample the goods?' I think the sheer presence of an event like Pick Me Up, taking place in a massive venue in the centre of London, is testament to the fact that design and illustration has a burgeoning audience rather than a diminishing one. Sure, it might be a trend or a passing flirtation but, for now, it seems there is a genuine interest in the work we make and I think that stems from the accessibility of graphic art. Drawing is familiar to everyone, we all do it as children, we learn to decipher stories through picture books, we draw before we write. That makes is far more approachable than sound installation or found object sculpture and other contemporary art forms. I think people outside of creative industries look to illustration for a break from more politicised 'fine art' narratives and that is a good thing if it means illustrators are kept in pocket. As one of the artists taking part in Pick Me Up this year I can safely say that there will be approximately 0% political narrative in the work I'll be displaying. That's just not what I do and it's not why I became an illustrator. I do hope, however, that the work I'm making will say something, however mundane, possibly about me, probably about the world I find myself in and certainly about mountains, because I think mountains are magnificent. As long as the work is made with passion and genuine belief then it'll say something. Isn't that usually the case?
So. In conclusion? Mr Zeegen, with all due respect (and lots is due) you're wrong. The cottage industry you're so worried about is a wonderful thing that allows young artists to profit from something they love. Its very existence is a statement to the resilience of artists and we should celebrate the self-sufficiency of cottage-industry makers who fly in the face of monstrous big business rather than berate the content of their work. Some days we say things and some days we don't and I think as long as whatever we're drawing has enthusiasm behind it then it does no damage to the face of contemporary illustration whatsoever. After all any work made, at any point in history, says something about the world it was made in. If it says anything else beyond that then thats a bonus eh?
So those are my thoughts. I have more but I won't trouble you with them. Its ok. I'm sorry. As you were.